Originally Published 2011-08-08 00:00:00 Published on Aug 08, 2011
If Barack Obama can match his oratorical skills with decisive action and emulate Roosevelt's bold economic measures and the Star Wars programme of Ronald Reagan, America can well embark on the path to economic recovery at home and overcome the strategic challenges that threaten its once pre-eminent global position.
Is the American dream over?
As the US struggles to find a balance between its military commitments abroad and a faltering economy at home that threatens to snowball into a debilitating debt trap, it has become fashionable among a large section of political analysts and economists to proclaim that America is in decline. The 'declinists', who call themselves the 'new realists', predict that the "demise" of the American Century will come sooner than anticipated and suggest that this could happen as early as 2025, with the US going into rapid decline by 2020. To substantiate their claims, early declinists like Yale historian Paul Kennedy focussed on the enervating effects of America's "imperial overstretch," while more recently, historians Niall Ferguson and Martin Jacques attribute America's decline to the weakening of its economy. They are joined by economists Paul Krugman and Michael Kinsley, among others.

Attributing the beginning of American decline to George W Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003, they rely, among other indicators, on the US National Intelligence Council's 2008 report, 'Global Trends 2025', which speaks of "the transfer of global wealth and economic power now underway, roughly from West to East" and "without precedent in modern history", as the primary factor of America's decline. They also challenge the "United States' relative strength - even in the military realm". However, while the NIC report had predicted a gradual 'soft landing' for American global pre-eminence and reposed faith that the United States would somehow "retain unique military capabilities... to project military power globally" for a long time to come, the declinists say that there will be no such luck. American decline will be sudden. They project that the Chinese economy will overtake that of the United States by 2026 and the US will lag behind India by 2050.

Their assumptions are based on the perceived inherent strengths of Chinese technological innovation that, according to them, is on a trajectory which will ensure the Chinese global leadership in the applied sciences and military technology before 2030. They further contend that by the same period, America's current crop of brilliant scientists and engineers, who have given it the technological advantage, will retire and replacements would be difficult to find from among the younger generation of Americans who have not equipped themselves with adequate scientific knowledge. They have issued a wake-up call for the US Administration to put adequate safeguards and incentives in place as its current employment policies are heavily loaded against immigrant students who spend huge sums of money for higher education in the US and are already beginning to look elsewhere due to a lack of employment opportunities in America.

It is further implied that technological and economic decline will have a corresponding negative impact on American military capability to deploy and maintain its almost 800 or more overseas military bases, forcing the United States to opt for a phased but unwilling withdrawal, thereby seceding vital strategic space to China, which is already in a close race to weaponise space and cyberspace. This would exacerbate tension between Beijing and Washington, thereby creating conditions for an armed conflict between the two by 2025.

But one need not give in to despondency. In the words of Polish-American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, "In the course of a single century, America has transformed itself - and has also been transformed by international dynamics - from a country relatively isolated in the Western hemisphere into a power of unprecedented world-wide reach and grasp." This dynamism is not likely to disappear anytime soon. America has certain inherent strengths - its capacity to innovate and adapt, the entrepreneurial skills of its people, its undisputed lead in technological excellence, and a steady inflow of highly skilled immigrant work force that will give it a great demographic advantage over its rivals. Also, it is the world's largest economy, has the world's leading universities and many of the biggest business companies.

Despite challenges, the US military is without doubt the most powerful in the world and the rivals are not likely to catch up as soon as the doomsayers predict.

While the US may be at the crossroads, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, the debate is more between issues of "absolute versus relative decline" and concepts like "resilience" and "passivity". In absolute terms, determining parameters show that US stock has actually gone up between 2000 and 2010. Its GDP increased 21 per cent in constant dollars, despite the setback of the economic meltdown of 2008-09, while military expenditure of $697 billion in 2010 was 55 per cent higher than in 2000, though this has drawn tremendous domestic flak. But on the positives, during the last decade, the US has witnessed an increase of 10 per cent in its population, mainly composed of prime working-age people rather than dependents, giving it a relatively favourable demographic advantage over most developed economies and China. To be honest, in relative terms, the US has witnessed some important declines between 2000 and 2010. For example, its GDP in 2000 was 61 per cent of the other G-20 countries, but by 2010 that figure had dropped to 42 per cent. But these assessments can never be made in black and white, as various supporting data needs to be factored in before arriving at a rounded picture.

Joseph Nye, the distinguished Harvard University professor and America's 'neo-liberal foreign policy guru', disregards the alarm bells sounded by the 'declinists' who seem to have no rationale when they make assessments of China's rapid economic and military rise. Nye dismisses such "misleading metaphors of organic decline" and denies any deterioration in US global power. Looking back in history, he points to the 1950s when many Americans feared that the communist Soviet Union "would surpass the United States as the world's leading power" since it possessed more territory, more population and much grater reserves of oil and gas than even Saudi Arabia. More recently, many Americans feared being overtaken by Japan "after Japanese per capita surpassed that of the United States" in 1989 and projections were made that Tokyo may well supplant Washington "as the colossus of the Pacific", perhaps even excluding it from a "Japanese-led pacific bloc". But this was not to be since these were more "linear projections based on rapidly rising power resources".

China, no doubt, is working determinedly towards developing its industrial and infrastructure base. It possesses the world's largest army, largest population, nuclear capability and, of course, rapidly modernising armed forces. But its internal dissensions in Tibet and Xinjiang, an aging population, emerging fissures in society and a great deal of opacity surrounding 'China's rise', it would not be prudent to arrive at conclusions about Beijing's rise to global pre-eminence "based primarily on its current growth rates and political rhetoric". While the potential and will to emerge as the world's most powerful nation exist, there are many deterrents along the way.

According to China watchers, the country faces many obstacles in its march towards global pre-eminence. They raise doubts about the authenticity of Chinese growth claims and the buoyancy of its economy, considering that the inefficient and outdated Chinese state-owned enterprises are a major drain on economic growth. Simultaneously, issues of corruption, a growing inequality among the people, domestic strife, an inadequate social safety net and suppression of basic rights of the people are all impediments to China's growth.

On balance, one can conclude in the words of Fareed Zakaria: "The US does face larger, deeper and broader challenges than it has ever faced in history, and the rise of the rest does mean that it will lose some share of global GDP. But the process will look nothing like Britain's slide in the 20th century, when the country lost the lead in innovation, energy and entrepreneurship. America will remain a vital, vibrant economy, at the forefront of the next revolutions in science, technology and industry - as long as it can embrace and adjust to the challenges confronting it."

This will require some bold thinking and initiatives of the same magnitude as the New Deal of Franklin D Roosevelt when millions of Americans had clustered around their radios on March 4, 1933, to hear the new President of the United States deliver his inaugural address: "Let me assert my firm belief," Roosevelt began, "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was quick to assess the national mood and went on to assail the business leaders whose incompetence and vested interests, he said, had largely been responsible for the economic disaster of 1929. "This nation asks for action and action now," he concluded, adding that he would seek from Congress "broad executive powers to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe". And, action was quick to follow in the form of a series of New Deal legislations that revolutionised the agricultural and industrial sectors, setting the United States on to a path of rapid modernisation and technological superiority that paved the way for its emergence as a superpower.

If Barack Obama can match his oratorical skills with decisive action and emulate Roosevelt's bold economic measures and the Star Wars programme of Ronald Reagan, America can well embark on the path to economic recovery at home and overcome the strategic challenges that threaten its once pre-eminent global position. Looking ahead, it is logical to infer that the United States will, in the years ahead, become more involved with revamping its domestic, economic and social institutions, thereby limiting its overseas commitments and deployment of conventional forces. It's likely to depend more on friends and allies to assume a larger, more responsible role in global geopolitics. In a globalised, highly integrated world, this should not be perceived as decline.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer
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